Jesus’s call to common living (the sharing of all money and possessions) is read by many as a political conviction about how society should be. And while this has not been the traditional interpretation of the Christian establishment, it is a popular means of arguing that Jesus intended his moral philosophy to be applied at a socioeconomic, as well as personal, level. In the previous installment, however, I concluded that Jesus did not commend common living as a matter of objective justice—as a standard for everyone in society—and hence this cannot be the basis of such an argument. But that does not preclude there being arguments for some of Jesus’s teachings that are meant for everyone having significant political implications. I will list several of these arguments below, after introducing a parable and explaining why this debate is important.
There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham.
The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony’ (Luke 16:19–25).
Like many parables, “The Rich Man and Lazarus” consists of a reversal, although here it is one that those of us familiar with Christianity would very much expect. Indeed, this appears to be straightforward reward-and-punishment tale, with a pedagogical function about the difference between good and evil. Similar fables were probably told to children at the time. This passage is sometimes given a literal misreading as a description of a doctrine of divine judgement, but although it is the most Jesus has to say about hell, it is only a story he told. We will all be judged—by time if not by God—and this could well have been a key meaning of the parable, but there is also a wider range of meaning about the immorality of the situation the tale locates in this world. Yet whether this should be read as criticizing greedy people simply as immoral individuals, or more broadly as criticizing systemic greed in society, depends on the scope of Jesus’s philosophy.
Images of Jesus
For many Christians, the idea that Jesus’s moral teaching applies at a socioeconomic level is controversial, if not outright objectionable. There are a number of reasons for this. The most fundamental is the ideological window in which thought about Jesus takes place. In some of the most popular forms of Christianity, the focus is almost entirely on Jesus’s death, his life and ministry are downplayed. This phenomenon is encapsulated in Mel Gibson’s recent statement on his continuing desire to depict Jesus in film, that his death “is the beginning and there’s a lot more story to tell.” From such viewpoints, Jesus’s moral statements, particularly those related to political matters, are sidelined.
Such statements and parables, as Symon Hill points out, have often been turned “into metaphors for something else, to avoid addressing economic issues” (Hill, 128). Hence, not only have they been widely ignored, but where they could not be avoided they have been theologically sanitized, explained away as allegories for metaphysical beliefs. This is somewhat ironic because as the philosopher Paul Ricoeur observed, one of the most striking things about the parables is how mundane, how down-to-earth their images are (Ricoeur, 240). Indeed, the Rich Man and Lazarus is the only parable with a supernatural scene (although God’s judgement is similarly heard in the parable of the Rich Fool, Luke 12:13–21/part 7). Thus, if metaphysical meanings can legitimately be read from the “mundane” parables, consistency requires that it is legitimate to read a down-to-earth moral message from this “supernatural” parable. And although what I am doing everywhere else in this series is surveying the moral rather than metaphysical interpretations, I do not dispute the legitimacy of either type of reading in the case of either type of parable.
Nevertheless, for many people the weight of the tradition of ignoring and sanitizing Jesus’s philosophy continues to make the idea of a Jesus who has something to teach us about politics eccentric, if not unthinkable. This impression is accentuated by the separation of church and state, which portrays religious beliefs as a personal matter. An image that is further strengthened by our highly individualistic consumerist society, both being promoted by the religious right in the USA, a movement that emphatically—and hypocritically—declares that Jesus’s teaching is a private, not a public morality. The religious right’s approach of obsessing over sexual issues as a matter of public policy, while reducing international development and poverty to matters of individual charity has been exposed as anti-Christian by the evangelical theologian Ronald J. Sider in his seminal book Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, and more recently by Pope Francis. But sadly, this ideology has built up quite a strong resistance to logic, and so presently we see Donald Trump counting on the support of conservative evangelicals. These people would try to sell the idea that the Rich Man and Lazarus is better answered by waiting for justice in the afterlife, than by taxing those with wealth to provide aid for the poor. Hell, they would try to sell anything.
Given this climate of thought around Jesus, and given that the gospels do not include an explicit affirmation of the broader scope (socioeconomic) perspective, many people are content to reject it by default. But Jesus had good reasons not to be explicit about the scope of his teaching, such as creating space for freer discussion of the issues raised by his parables, and to avoid arrest (Hill, 185). Moreover, the absence of positive evidence is not evidence of absence, so it is illogical to default to one side when the burden of proof is on neither. Likewise, it would also be illogical for us to reject the side taken by the religious right out of distaste for their faith or politics, and hence we must continue to listen to both sides of the debate.
Spiritual Not Political?
Another argument made in favor of the narrower scope (personal) perspective is that the purpose of Jesus’s ministry, and the content of his teaching, was spiritual not political. And it certainly was spiritual. It’s clear, for example, how it was spiritual as opposed to scientific or technological. Whether Jesus was divine or not, the focus of his mission would not have included pharmaceutical innovations or the invention of the bicycle—although according to Mel Gibson he did invent the dining table.
It is also clear that Jesus was not political in the specific sense of being a political leader; he had followers, yes, but not as a candidate for administrating a territory. Nor, as I said in part 10, is it reasonable to interpret Jesus’s clearing of the Temple (Luke 19:45-7) as the start of an attempted political revolt. But this does not mean that Jesus’s philosophy was not political (as well as spiritual) in a more general sense. Indeed, morality is one of the chief components of spirituality, and although we speak of moral philosophy and political philosophy as distinct fields, the same values we hold for the former will of course apply to the latter also. For example, Jesus’s virtue of non-possessiveness was introduced in part 7 as a disposition of character against possessive thoughts and attachment, and then throughout parts 9 and 10 we surveyed Jesus’s critique of the imperial economic system in terms of the same value, since he was not attacking trade or money themselves, but how that system ran on, and engendered, possessiveness.
Just as the moral and the political cannot be fully disentangled, neither can the spiritual and the political. The argument that Jesus’s message was spiritual rather than political rests on the assumption that these are clearly distinct categories, but as noted by noted theologian Stanley Hauerwas, in Jesus’s time they were inseparable (Hauerwas, 2006, Matthew, SCM Press; cited in Hill, 157). After all, there was no separation of church and state, and the Temple was the center of native power. Jesus’s audience would have heard the political resonances of his words without trying to categorize them as political or spiritual, categories they would not even have understood (Hill, 29).
The argument that Jesus’s moral teaching does not extend to socioeconomic matters because it was”spiritual,” therefore fails. But a more nuanced version of this narrow-scope argument would be that Jesus’s teaching is focused on the inner attitudes of the heart, and not on society’s laws. This is a good argument and the response must begin by acknowledging that this “inward turn” toward mindfulness of intentions and attitudes (see part 5) rather than a legalistic form of morality is a distinctive centerpiece to Jesus’s ethics. But there is no reason to reduce his teaching to this alone. It is true to say that Jesus was focused on inner attitudes, but what he really valued was people. As ecumenical leader John Bluck puts it:
[Jesus] refused to divide people by gender or race or religion; a vision that created no outsiders. [His vision] was driven by generosity, forgiveness and room to start over again when we fail. It valued love above everything, and justice, which is love spread around evenly (Bluck, 2001, The Giveaway God, WCC, 15; quoted in: Levine, 182).
Far from precluding a broader scope for Jesus’s morality, moreover, the “inward turn” supports Jesus’s critique of socioeconomic injustice. In addition to how we saw this above with possessiveness, it is also behind the critique of the how the rich treat the poor in the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. Every day, remember, while the rich man was dressed royally and gorging himself on treats, on his doorstop, Lazarus was starving. In contrast to the parable of the Rich Fool (Luke 12:13–21/part 7), we are not told that either of them died suddenly, so with the passage of time the rich man would have known that Lazarus was there, “covered with sores” and longing “to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table” (Luke 16:20-21a), but he did nothing about it (O’Collins, 197).
How do wealthy people such as this, who do so little of what they could to help, harden their hearts to the suffering of others so completely that they can bare to live in comfort? Gerald O’Collins SJ suggests that it is “extraordinary opulence” that corrupts them (O’Collins, 128). Hence, the rich man lacks the “poverty in spirit” of the Generous Widow (Luke 21:14/part 11), whose solidarity with the poor empowers her to share everything she has.
This debate will conclude in the next installment, where we will also further discuss the messages of this parable.
The Bible: New Revised Standard Version, (1993), Geoffrey Chapman, London
Hill, Symon, (2015), The Upside Down Bible: What Jesus Really Said About Money, Sex, and Violence, Darton, Longman & Todd, London
Levine, Amy-Jill, (2006), The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus, HarperOne, New York
O’Collins, Gerald, (1999), Following the Way: Jesus Our Spiritual Director, Harper Collins, London
Ricoeur, Paul, ,”Listening to the Parables of Jesus,” from: Regan, Charles E. & Stewart, David (eds.), (1997), The Philosophy of Paul Ricoeur: An Anthology of His Work, Beacon Press